Sadly, Australia Day has become an increasingly polarising topic in our society, with strong opinions in two opposing camps, and (like with so much of discourse nowadays) seemingly very little middle ground.
In the one camp, the very notion of ‘Australia Day’ on January 26 (the day the First Fleet arrived in 1788) is seen as insulting. They see the arrival of Europeans as an ‘invasion’, and point out that it resulted in the deaths of countless indigenous Australians. For them, it is a day of mourning.
In the other camp, Australia Day is not about mourning, but about celebrating. Yes, there have been many wrongs done in the past, but (it’s often said) that shouldn’t take away from the many good things we can celebrate as a nation. The peace, prosperity, and rich & diverse culture we now enjoy.
So some say it should be a day of mourning. Others, a day of celebrating.
And the two sides battle it out.
With some rare exceptions (see for example this great article by John Dickson), there seems to be no discussion about the possibility of a middle ground. About acknowledging both the evils in our past and the blessings we should be thankful for.
After all, both are part of who we are as Australians. If both evil and good are part of our nation’s history, shouldn’t we remember both? Shouldn’t we remember and mourn the evils in our past, so that we avoid them in future? And shouldn’t we also celebrate the many good things we’ve been blessed with in this remarkable nation?
So with absolutely no authority on this topic, I want to put my voice out there to say Australia Day should be a time for both mourning and celebration.
A Two-Part Holiday
What might this look like concretely? Imagine if the first part of Australia Day was a national time of remembrance. Shops closed til lunch. Public ceremonies of remembrance involving indigenous Australians. A minute of silence. I’m no expert on this stuff, but you get the idea.
Then from lunchtime, we have a time of celebration. Of being thankful for all the blessings we enjoy in this country. The economic prosperity, the beautiful environment, the cultural diversity, the quality of life. Australia Day becomes a two-part holiday, and a poignant annual reminder to all of both our shortcomings and also the reasons we have to be thankful.
Now again, I’m no expert. And I don’t expect anyone take my advice on it. But the more I think about it, at the very least I want my family to mark Australia Day this way. I don’t want my children growing up ignorant of the evils of our past, or of the hurts that remain for indigenous Australians today. And I also don’t want them growing up ignorant of just how blessed we are to live in this amazing country.
Ecclesiastes famously reminds us that there is “a time for everything,” including “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4). And sometimes, we ought to both mourn and celebrate at the same time.
So whether Australia Day stays on January 26 or moves to another date, this is for sure: we need more honest dialogue that recognises the need for both mourning and rejoicing. Of both grieving and celebrating. Because both are unavoidably part of our country’s history and identity.